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This Diary is a mash-up of several Diaries I've previously Posted here and have been asked to revisit with the return of winter driving season

The flatbed truck, loaded with steel pipe out of Chattanooga westbound for Oklahoma City, was 30 miles out of Little Rock, cruise control set right at the posted speed limit. 200 feet behind him was another tractor trailer, pulling a dry van loaded with shelves and fixtures for a new Auto Zone store in California. There had been a light sprinkle earlier, but the road was mostly dry

The Pontiac Transport minivan was headed for Memphis, with a perfectly average couple in the front and their two little girls in their car seats in the back, going to see their Grandma.

The two teenage boys on the overpass were bored.

It probably seemed fairly harmless to put a rock in the plastic shopping bag they found in a ditch and drop it off the overpass to watch somebody dodge it.

When the bag fluttered down in front of the minivan driver he jerked the wheel to the left, dropping his left front tire off the pavement, sending the van onto the wet grass in the shallow median. With the cruise control set at 70 mph it came out into the westbound lanes at full speed. The driver of the flatbed got off on the shoulder as far as he could go to the right, the dry van behind him locked all 18 wheels and drifted to the right.

The sloped nose of the minivan went under the left side tandems of the flatbed; the 17,000 pounds they were carrying flipped it out the back like a potato chip in a high wind.

When the smoke and the dust settled the flatbed was off the road on the grass verge on the right side of the road; the dry van behind it was stopped on the shoulder; the minivan was upright out to the right of the flatbed, the highest part maybe waist high off the ground. The two truck drivers got to it almost simultaneously, the dry van driver carrying a 3' crowbar, their only available tool. The only sign of life was a continuous keening whimper coming from the center area of the minivan. The crowbar was inadequate to gain access.

An Arkansas State Trooper arrived about ten minutes later, without any tools that would gain access to the minivan, so he joined the truck drivers in standing helpless, listening to that godawful whimpering, refusing to loan his sidearm to the dryvan driver so he could at least do the humane thing.

About 25 minutes after the crash an ambulance arrived, equipped with all manner of medical supplies and equipment and two well-trained paramedics, but no tools that would gain access to the interior of the minivan. About this time the nature of the keening from inside changed; one of the girls had fallen silent.

About 35 minutes after the crash a Fire Department Rescue Team arrived, having covered the nearly 50 miles from their station as quickly as they could. As if a malevolent God with a twisted sense of humor was in charge, the whimpering faded out as they unloaded their equipment...

The foregoing happened, in front of me. I was driving the dry van. Out of compassion I have no doubt that the family of the dead was told, as is standard in car/truck wrecks, that the dead "died instantly". Based on 15 years and some million-and-a-half miles on American roads, and witnessing dozens (or hundreds) of such crashes, I can tell you it's rarely actually true. What it really means is that the fate of the dead was sealed upon impact, regardless of how long it took them to get there.

Before we dive into how one can best avoid a fate worse than quick death, let's review some physics. Most passenger vehicles on American roads typically weigh between 3,000 and 4,500 pounds. The biggest passenger vehicle generally encountered, the H1 Hummer, weighs just over 10,000 pounds. My Freightliner, pulling an empty 53'dry van trailer, weighs between 32,000 and 33,000 pounds. Empty. Under Federal (and State) regulations my maximum legal gross weight is 80,000 pounds, 20 times that of a minivan, eight times what a Hummer weighs. My tires weigh about 120 pounds each, and are inflated to between 100-120 psi. Just my fuel tanks, when full, weigh as much as the average passenger car. If we get tangled up, whether it's your fault, my fault or nobody's fault at all, you will lose. Every time.

I cannot adequately teach anyone what they really need to know about sharing roads with commercial trucks in this forum; riding with me for a week would be ample, but I'll try. Since the vast majority of miles driven by trucks is on Interstates and freeways, and most fatal wrecks occur there, that will be my focus.

It takes me longer to do anything in an 80,000 pound truck that's 65 feet long and bends in the middle than a car; accelerating, changing lanes, stopping. Please bear that in mind.

Entering an Interstate in a car should be a simple process; there's a clearly marked acceleration lane to allow you to match speed with traffic. Use it. Jumping out into a traffic lane at 40 mph in front of a truck going 65 apparently seems like a good idea to a lot of people, but I've never figured out why. Most truckers will move over a lane if they can to give merging traffic a clear lane, but running alongside them in the acceleration lane assuming they can or will, then having to brake sharply at the end of the lane (or darting just in front of them) is downright stupid. If you follow a truck onto an Interstate it will seem like it takes it forever to get up to speed; it seems that way to the guy driving it too. The dumbest thing you can do is to pop out from behind it without bothering to check on the traffic in the next lane that is already at speed. The extra ten seconds you have to remain behind the truck is rarely fatal; the pop-out move frequently is.

Interstates and freeways, by definition, have two or more traffic lanes travelling the same direction separated from opposing traffic by a barrier or median. READ ALL THE SIGNS!! In many places, especially in and near metropolitan areas, there are restrictions on which lanes trucks are allowed to use. The most popular on three-lane roads has become "Trucks must use right two lanes". This Rule makes the center lane the Passing lane for trucks, which makes it a piss-poor place for dawdling. "Keep Right Except to Pass" and "Slower Traffic Keep Right" are, next to speed limits, the most widely ignored signs (and traffic regulations) out there. Most of the time when you look in your mirror (those shiny things that let you look behind you that few people use) and see nothing but the grill of a Peterbilt it's because you are failing to "Keep Right Except to Pass". That driver doesn't want to tailgate you, he wants to pass; getting out of the way would be a good plan at this point, but not dawdling with an open lane to your right would be a better plan in future.

There are two safe places to drive in relation to heavy trucks; behind them or in front of them. Beside them is a really bad idea for a variety of reasons. First, it's much harder for the driver to stay aware of exactly where you are, particularly on the "off" (right) side, and you really want the driver of any truck around you to know exactly where you are and where you intend to go. Running over you is terribly inconvenient.

Perhaps the top reason to avoid running alongside a truck is those tires I mentioned earlier. The majority of trailer tires on commercial vehicles are recaps, inflated to 120 psi. When one lets go it can throw chunks weighing 50 pounds or more at velocities well exceeding the truck's speed, and sounds like a grenade going off. Scares the hell out of me when it happens 50 feet behind me; it can (and does) knock the window out of a car that's alongside, even if no rubber hits the car. If you are going to pass a truck, go ahead and get it completed. DON'T DAWDLE ALONGSIDE!

Trucks have a modern innovation many people are apparently unfamiliar with, lights down each side (and on each corner) that flash (cars have these too but they are rarely used). These are known to professional drivers as "directional signals" or simply "turn signals". If you will watch carefully these give you advance notice of where that vehicle is going to be in the very near future, which is a very good place to arrange to not be when it gets there. They are NOT an indication that it's time to speed up so you aren't behind it; behind it beats under it every time. There will also be times when you see a truck in front of you suddenly start flashing these "directional signals" on both sides at the same time. This configuration is known as "emergency flashers" and usually means there is some bad shit of some kind ahead you probably want to hit as slowly as possible.

When traffic is heavy you will notice that trucks tend to leave a gap between their front bumper and the vehicle ahead. While this space may look invitingly like it is custom designed to fit your car it is actually the driver's estimate of his safe stopping distance in case the traffic in front stops suddenly. If you dart into that space and traffic does stop you just made his stopping distance fall somewhere between your headrest and dash. This is almost always unpleasant. Should you need to move into such a space simply pull up alongside the space, match your speed to the speed of the vehicle that defines the front of the space, find the control for YOUR "directional signal" (usually a stick protruding from the left side of your steering column, push it up for "right" or down for "left", with a little practice you'll figure it out), and give the truck a moment to give you room, they almost always will.

Allow me a sidebar to explain one of the great mysteries of the road, the Phantom Traffic Jam. Everybody experiences these, where multiple lanes of traffic sharply slow or stop, but no cause is ever encountered. These are almost invariably caused by assholes who run up almost to their desired Exit three or four lanes to the left of the actual Exit Ramp, then have to force their way across multiple lanes, essentially stopping two lanes at a time until they finally get to the lane they should have been in a mile back. Avoid being one of these Assholes (which the Law should allow me to squash).

Sharing the road with trucks is a fact of life in America; EVERYTHING you eat, drink, sit on, work with or play with has to move by truck several times, from raw material to delivery to the point of purchase, before you get your hands on it. The entire American economy depends on there being millions of trucks in motion 24 hours a day, and there are roughly 50,000 more every year. Dying under one is largely optional, and the choice is, for the most part, yours.

Folks driving the same road every day DON'T PAY ATTENTION!! Everything is routine, they make the same turns at the same places at the same time every morning, without having to think about any of it, so they have plenty of time to review the paperwork for the 8:00 meeting or finish the sports section on the way. Until something slightly out of the ordinary happens and they kill a pedestrian or drive under a bus that's running a few minutes late.

The fact that I have managed to drive a truck for roughly 15 years without an accident, driving in whatever conditions and at whatever time is necessary, is partially attributable to luck, but is primarily because I am fanatical about keeping track of every vehicle I can see, calculating what the stupidest possible thing they can do is and having a response ready in case they do it. If there is a deer in the treeline alongside the road I want to know it, not because it affects me just standing there but because it may not keep standing there.

By far the most important single thing any driver can do to maximize their chances of completing any trip, whether it's across the Country or two blocks to the store is PAY ATTENTION! Drunk drivers and idiot kids with cars will both have a much harder time killing you if you have already noticed their erratic driving and considered your options for getting out of their way.

No matter how good a driver you are, no matter how good your reflexes, no matter how attentive you may be bad shit can (and will, if you drive enough) happen to or around you. No matter what happens, KEEP DRIVING! As long as you have control of your vehicle, use it. If you lose control, keep trying because you just might get it back. You can quit driving when you're dead, but until them putting your hands over your eyes will NEVER improve the situation, but will frequently make it far worse than it has to be.

There are three kinds of things you can hit with a car; things travelling the same direction as you, things that are not moving relative to you and things that are oncoming. I list them in that order because that is the order of desirability for hitting them. Hitting something (usually a vehicle, obviously) travelling the same direction is rarely fatal (unless the speed differential is extreme, in which case you weren't paying attention), as long as that's all you hit. The most popular way to make this situation far worse is to then hit either a stationary object or an oncoming one by the simple expedient of allowing undirected physics to determine the outcome by not continuing to drive. Even at high speed a simple sideswipe is not a serious matter (if you aren't a piece of sheet metal) but I can't tell you how many times I've seen a few hundred dollars worth of damage turn tragic because one (or both) drivers quit. NEVER QUIT!

Stationary objects are fairly easy to avoid hitting because, well, they are stationary. Some, like bridge abutments, are particularly important to avoid hitting because they won't move even after you hit them. The number one way to avoid hitting this kind of stationary object is NEVER LEAVE THE ROAD. No matter what is happening IN the road you will almost invariably make it worse by leaving any road at high speed. Hitting a deer or a dog or ass-ending a car that pulls out in front of you is almost always less destructive than what happens if you leave the road, thereby entering an area heavily populated with stationary objects we professionals call "not on the road".

The only thing worse than hitting a stationary object is hitting one that is oncoming, thereby adding your speed to it's speed to make the impact truly spectacular. This is to be avoided at all costs. If, for any reason, you find yourself driving in the median of a divided highway STAY THERE. There is nothing in a median that will be as painful to hit as coming out into opposing traffic will be.

There are two primary elements of "control" that you want to maintain, and use, when the shit gets in the fanbelt; steering and speed. GET RID OF SPEED. No matter what kind of bad shit is about to happen to you it will almost invariably be less unpleasant if you are going less fast. When things go wrong shed speed as fast as you can while not losing control. Jumping on the brakes with both feet in most emergencies is a bad idea because, anti-lock brakes or not, it is a very good way to relinquish all directional control. Using your brakes to rapidly bleed speed, on the other hand, is usually the best idea you will have all day when the fan blades get shmeared.

South Georgia, 20 miles or so north of the Florida line on I-95. Raining like two cows pissin' on the same flat rock. The kind of rain you only encounter south of Atlanta and east of Mobile, or in a hurricane or monsoon. The kind of rain where fresh roadkill can be either a bass or a possum, when driving uphill too fast can cause the bends...

Southbound traffic was fairly light, a line of 8 or 9 trucks spaced out so that the spray from one was mostly below windshield level before the next ran into it, staying in the right lane at about 62 or 63 mph, not so much because of the half-inch of water waiting its turn to run off the road as the feeling of disaster hovering in the air, looking for somewhere to land.

Northbound traffic was heavier, mostly tourists from places like Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania where rain has the common decency to form into individual drops before falling, running nose-to-tail at 55 mph, with trucks scattered here and there amongst them and irritated about it. One jackass from New Jersey or Vermont or some other jackass incubator dragging his 30' camper trailer in the left lane, not moving any faster than the slow lane but apparently only licensed to drive in the left; behind him, just clear of the cloud of spray coming off the camper tires, a Peterbilt pulling a flatbed with sideboards, loaded with citrus going somewhere up the seaboard.

The last driver in the southbound line saw him first, and warned the trucks in front. A blue Chevrolet Stepside pickup, lowered to about 3" off the ground, riding on extra-wide slicks all around, neon lights underneath, stereo decals (a Table of Contents for thieves) covering the back windows, every available accessory except a chandolier and a rudder, only one of which would have been useful. Driver reclining against the door like he was on a couch watching TV, the one hand on the wheel in constant motion as he surfed his way south at about 70 mph. He was too cool for words.

The southbound drivers started making their estimates on how far he would make it before he crashed; the most optimistic (and least experienced) thought he might make it to the State line. The cynical bastard leading the pack was just hoping he got past him.

It was bound to happen, so it did, when he was about 50 yards in front of the lead truck of the pack. Either he over-corrected or hit a wave, but either way the front of the truck drifted left and dropped the left-front tire off the pavement, causing a sharp pull to the left, which the driver tried to counteract by jerking the wheel right. It didn't bring the front back on the road but it did kick the back wheels out to the left, sending the pickup across the pond that was pretending to be a median like a flat rock.

The citrus-hauler first saw the pickup when it came out of the camper spray, broadside on, still travelling something over 50, sideways. With nowhere to go and no time to get there he instinctively stabbed at his brakes, locking his trailer tires which started a drift to the right.

On impact, the left side of the Peterbilt bumper hit square on the driver's door of the pickup, at a combined closing speed of probably 100 mph, the driver of the pickup trying desperately to get away from the door he'd been reclining against a couple of seconds earlier. He might as well have flapped his arms and tried to fly. The pickup windows that didn't blow out instantly turned red; the impact slowed the Peterbilt but his trailer continued to sweep right, gathering up a couple of carloads of tourists and blocking the road. The chain-reaction collisions started immediately.

The southbound truck convoy rolled on, agreeing instantly that trying to stop would do far more harm than good. In between warning non-involved northbound trucks of what was happening right in front of them the driver of the front truck, a cold-blooded bastard who had long since quit being impressed by random death, remarked that whoever called 911 needed to have them load the ambulance with extra sponges and buckets, or a ShopVac...

Many folks seem to think that they must drive at least the posted limit, regardless of conditions; these people are frequently known as roadkill. They might get away with it for years, luck apparently having an affinity for the stupid, but depending on luck when travelling at 100 feet-per-second is not my idea of fun.

Perhaps the most deceptively dangerous driving conditions present themselves when a road is freshly wet, especially if the weather has been dry for a while. After a few minutes the accumulated oil and rubber and bug guts will wash off, but for those few minutes the road is as slick as it will ever be without ice. I saw a multi-car accident Tuesday afternoon just outside St. Louis on I-55 North under exactly these conditions. A small (but heavy) rain squall moved across the highway and within a minutes cars were spinning across four lanes. One driver losing visibility and hitting their brakes, causing another driver to swerve on a road slicker than babboon snot...

ANY less-than-optimal condition should trigger an immediate reduction in speed, whether it is rain, fog, snow, heavier traffic or livestock in the road. At 70 mph you are covering almost 100 feet every second; at 50 mph it's closer to 70 feet. Go out into your front yard and mark off these distances so you can visualize them, the difference can be huge. At the same time, the difference can be barely significant. Most trips by car are in the neighborhood of ten miles or less; at 70 mph ten miles takes about 8 1/2 minutes. Cutting your speed to 60 mph for the same trip adds an entire minute-and-a-half, ninety seconds, while increasing significantly your chances of completing it unhindered by death or dismemberment, both of which are notorious for the delays they cause.

I won't even mention the significant improvement in fuel efficiency, and reduction in emissions, because everybody knows Liberals don't care...

The time to chop your speed is NOT when you hit adverse conditions, it's when you see them. Every year we hear about horrendous chain-reaction crashes involving dozens of vehicles piling up in fog banks. In somewhere between a million-and-a-half and two million highway miles I have never seen fog, except where it was artificially produced, that went immediately from clear to thick. If you run into fog that reduces your visibility at all lose some speed; if the fog clears you can resume your speed with the loss of a few seconds. If it thickens and you are going 50 instead of 70 that thirty feet-per-second difference might well be a life-or-death difference.

A note to those who drive SUVs; STOP WATCHING THE COMMERCIALS!! Four wheel drive WILL give you increased traction to get started on snow or ice (or mud or sand), but, at speed, it makes you MORE likely to get in a skid and makes any skid MORE likely to result in a loss of control, and SUVs are invariably more top-heavy than other passenger vehicles and thus more prone to rolling over, always a bad thing. A four wheel drive vehicle CAN proceed on snowy or icy roads roads better than a two-wheel-drive vehicle, but it CANNOT safely proceed faster, because the limiting factor, once in motion, is not driving traction, it's steering traction, and having power to the steer tires does NOT increase steering traction. Front-wheel-drive cars are NOT better on snow because the front tires both steer and drive but because the weight of the engine sits over the drive tires. I see dozens of wrecks every winter that could easily be avoided if folks would understand this one paragraph.

There's an easy way to gauge whether your speed on sub-optimal roads is appropriate, regardless of whether you are dealing with rain or snow or ice; swerve 6 inches either way. If you are afraid to do so because you fear losing control, you are going too fast. A gazillion different things can happen that will force you to change position within your lane, a chunk of truck tire (a "gator"), an ice ball off a truck (I've dropped these things that would weigh 100+ pounds), somebody's ladder. If you can't swerve by 6" you aren't really in control, you're a passenger.

By far the most dangerous road condition in winter is "black ice", which is hard to see because it's transparent and has no snow sticking to it. It doesn't matter what you are driving, black ice is a killer. Watch for it especially under overpasses, where daytime melt runs off the overhead road and refreezes on the road below. If you are driving in winter and notice lots of trucks pulled off onto the shoulder for no apparent reason, it's probably because there's bad black ice ahead.

Note that this doesn't apply necessarily to trucks parked on the shoulder of exit and entrance ramps, an every night thing now. This was extremely rare a few years ago, as it's the worst possible place to park to sleep, but it has been caused by adding trucks to the road far faster than parking places have been added while reducing the allowed hours of operation. Rest areas are full most nights by 8:30 or so, truckstops by 10:00 or 11:00. After that ramps are the only place left.

A final note that I may have covered in a previous Diary but am too lazy to go check; if road conditions are less than ideal forget that you have a cruise control, TURN IT OFF! You need to be actively in control of everything, and having your car trying to accellerate when you are busy avoiding an obstruction or evading a skidding car is not helpful...

I will not be citing any scholarly studies in this section, because I'm not aware of any that are based on gathering observations for over 100,000 miles a year since the advent of portable phones. I have watched, with interest, since "portable phones" came in bags with shoulder straps and weighed ten pounds, and were rare as virgin dancers in Las Vegas.

You, or a family member, are more likely to be injured or killed by a driver talking on a cell phone than a drunk driver!!

An individual driver on the phone is slightly less dangerous than a drunk, but in the aggregate they are far worse because they vastly outnumber drunks, particularly during the daytime. Their contribution to motor vehicle accidents is grossly under-reported and under-appreciated because, unlike drunks, there's a cellphone in damned-near every car and truck on the road, so it's usually not even worthy of note.

Drivers with a cell phone stuck to their head are, like drunks, blissfully unaware of their surroundings. In polite company I call them "cell-zombies"; most of the time I more accurately call them stupid motherfuckers. If you are observant they are usually fairly easy to recognize. They invariably stay glued in whatever lane they happen to start out in, even when a lane change would be appropriate or safer, to the extent of never noticing an emergency vehicle behind them with flashing lights (until they bump the siren). Generally, their speed will gradually decrease, because like everything else they aren't paying attention to their speedometer.

Drivers on cell phones, when they finally DO realize they must change lanes, are far less likely than the average driver to signal the change or visually clear the lane they are moving into, and, since they frequently fail to keep track of where they are geographically, are more likely than most to cross several lanes at once, having run past their exit while getting caught up on what Suzy is cooking for dinner. They are more likely to run red lights because they don't notice them, and will invariably be the last to react to visible road hazards ahead.

I understand that in today's world it is almost unavoidable that even the most responsible driver will get/make fairly important calls while driving, but it is fairly easy to minimize the chances that doing so will contribute to your hurting or killing someone. First, if the call cannot be cut short within about a minute, get off the road. If the call requires that you give or receive detailed instructions or write anything longer than a phone number down, get off the road.

While you are actually on the phone you have to consciously and aggressively compensate for the deficiencies celling causes, by forcing yourself to remain hyper-aware of your surroundings and keeping your eyes moving, constantly, from the road in front to your mirrors to your instruments (as you should anyway).

And for the Love of Corn, if you have a teenager who drives (that you want to keep around) find some way to get across to them that there is no way that somebody who is, at best, marginally safe to drive on dry roads in broad daylight can pull it off when their feeble little addled mind is absorbed with what they are texting or talking about.

The most dangerous car on the road is NOT the 1978 Cutlass Supreme with lots of Bondo and a 40-year-old drunk at the wheel; it's a Pontiac Sunbird with 4 or 5 teenaged girls in it, most or all of whom are on the phone.

A final note: I will quit Posting this when folks quit driving like idiots...

Originally posted to The Baculum King on Fri Nov 21, 2008 at 01:05 PM PST.

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